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The Daughter In Law
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:55 pm - The Daughter In Law
1

I saw The Daughter In Law on August 9th in previews at the Mint, a snug little theatre on the fifth floor of a large building at 311 West 43rd Street. Their beautifully designed web site, a small domestic adventure I recommend, can be seen at info@minttheater.
The Mint is a cozy citadel of generously resurrected plays in the West 40s that has consistently come out of an English necropolis to put on high level productions of neglected Georgian and Edwardian plays of the most intriguing character. These zealots for the dead are really as good as it gets in their nacral niche.
The Mint offers excellent and generous notes for every play, They provide them as well to anyone surveying on their excellent web site, they even publish vintage anthologies of the plays they have done in handsome editions they sell cheaply. I’m not going to repeat The Mint’s wonderfully resonant notes; I would suggest anyone who loves theatre read them at once on their well designed web site.
New Yorkers should be happy that anything one sees at The Mint is always done authentically, unobtrusive executed with intricately fashioned sets in the realistic manner of the time, directed fluidly and with personal feeling for the playwright, cast cunningly.
One never has the feeling at The Mint that one is getting a broadly executed, not too subtle American version of a theatrical spectacle that has to us arcane cultural resonances the author had calculated as the ordinary legacy of his audience that had sorrily entirely vanished in a New York presentation.
The wizardry of Sharron Bower as casting director brings us the Mint’s usual impeccable and even cast of brilliant performers. One is awed by the amount of work it must have taken to find actors who could do these accents; they sound as well as, look as though they have come from the mining country that spawned them. The actors must have been willing to work very hard as these stalwarts must have evidently labored to be fluent in the dialect of a play largely written in such an argot.
Mikel Sarah Lambert as Mrs. Gascoyne is properly frumpy and subtle dominating as the mother of Luther, the protagonist and errant husband. Lawrence has given her a capacious part of a fully rounded matriarchal figure whose tragedy is all the more affecting for the way it is leisurely built up.
Jodie Lynne McClintock playing Mrs. Purdy, the mother of the impregnated and naturally lusty wench Luther has accidentally knocked up, is both subtle and insinuating, manipulative yet honorable. Peter Russo’s low key portrait of Joe, the unfinished and not quite adult though physically ripe yonder brother of the protagonist, is lightfooted, cunningly all the more effective because there is nothing broad or large-gestured about his muted performance. It sets off Luther’s histrionics very well.
Angela Reed as Minnie, the wife with a little more gentility coming as she does from a larger town, has the right straddle of moxie and despair of a young woman whose hopes and marriage are in tatters. She ranges from shrewish to piteous with an easy movement.
Lawrence does not give us his protagonist and main action until the second act. In it Gareth Saxe as Luther ene looks a little like D, H. Lawrence as the half weak, half heroic Luther Gascoyne. As the reader can see, Lawrence has wonderful play with these names; he thinks like a poet. His linear main action moves with a knifelike propulsion for all its long exposition we don’t think of as in Lawrence’s palette.
We never see the obvious option open to him of a confrontations scene between the other characters and the pregnant girl; it isn’t Lawrence’s aim to lose his rather ferocious focus on emotional and carnal relations between lovers and mothers and their children.
Holly Poe Durbin as the costume designer and Bill Clarke in his set design do the optimal with this crystallized quality of imploded anatomy in Lawrence’s play. The Mint’s snug stage gives them.
Thanks to them one feels one is at home in the two hearths of this mining town. Most masterful in his easy yet controlled direction, Martin L. Platt is an expert on the evidence at finding the little rhythms and takes which vary the action in this microcosm of a cast.
One can't be other than awed by Amy Stoller as the dialect coach of this crew. It’s hard to be on stage for two hours and not falter a little putting such strange provincial sounds to English. I didn’t hear a single lapse for her cohorts.
The Mint as we have it is the brainchild of Jonathan Bank, its artistic director since 1994, he’s won Obies and Drama Desk Awards, has dug up and mounted over twenty worthy but neglected plays including Granville-Barker's The Voysey Inheritance (which I saw last year and thought scrumptious drawing room tragedy), and Arthur Schnitzler’s Far and Wide (Das Weite Land) which he also adapted and directed.
Bank has edited the Mint anthology I mentioned, Worthy But Neglected: Plays of the Mint Theater Company (2002, Granville Press) a rich trove of nearly unknown plays which the Mint sells at a cheap price in the lobby. Bank was also around to correct some confusion I had had about the date of this play; ignorant as I was of Lawrence as a playwright I found it hard to believe Lawrence had written this in 1911. Could you ask for more from these people?

2

The Daughter In Law really shows what is possible if one really trusts the intelligence of the audience, the play and the playwright; The Mint has most of the characters talking in the very dialect we are familiar with in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was Lawrence’s language of the heart. The Mint has provided a glossary for some of the words; we can pick them all up in context. I don’t think it’s worth the work; it’s nice that it’s there.
It’s the sound of the English which one never has to deal with in Lawrence’s written out novels is at once beautiful and affecting if it keeps the audience very alert to catch all the words. It’s worth it; Lawrence spoken has a music one doesn’t glean from the page.
Although one has taken in over the years plays by such giants who are mere names to us as Granville Barker and St. John Hankin (though Granville-Barker survives for us as a Shakespeare critic), of them all by far this production of Lawrence’s masterpiece of intimacy between men and women written in 1911 before he had written his great novelistic explorations of these same intimacies in the 1920s is the most startling and extraordinary.
Stendahl once said when asked whom he was writhing for: “the 20th century.” as it turned out Stendahl was right. Lawrence is another one of these very original genius like Gesualdo, Blake or Poe whom the world takes it’s time catching up to.
Lawrence as a playwright might very well have been writing for the 21st century. His corpus of plays were never produced, never published until the 1960s, and when I went to college and thought I knew something about Lawrence because I had once read all his novels, stories and verse, their very existence of his plays was never mentioned.
Lawrence had his plays published more than thirty years after his death in 1930 in England out of a circumstance he could not have predicated; John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and the such working class playwrights had shown theatre about the English bottom offering fully founded characters could be successfully offered to the largely working class public.
In a profound sense the rise as cultural prophets of populists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Who n the 60s made Lawrence less of a totally unthinkable genius for a new audience than he was for his own time. Lawrence had certainly been appreciated by his peers like Alduous Huxley, who wrote two novels with Lawrence as a main character; yet one of my late friends who knew Lawrence said the poor man couldn’t make a living.
It had also been true of Blake and Poe. Unfortunately for cosmic justice a genius has to have the luck to be born into am age in which his originality is not unimaginable, criminal or odious.
Of course by the time I went to college thousands of professors as well as publishers were doing quite well financially from Lawrence’s genius. One might even by 1952 0 so read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as Lawrence had written it without buying it in France in the Traveler’s Companion series. Now in 2003 w not only can re some of Lawrence’s plays; thanks to The Mint we can, a half century after these carnal matters became legal to peruse in a book, see a beautifully staged execution of one of the same concerns.
The Daughter In Law is on the surface a tale of how women, mothers and wives at once love and sacrifice for yet try to contort men, how men are elusive and cunning liars sometimes, honest and honorable simultaneously as well, alternately weak and strong, oscillating between bravery and cowardice, how the balance of dominance in the sexual war shifts back and forth between male and female over seasons of time. It’s all similar to Sons and Lovers, Women In Love and The Rainbow, here done with a severe focus these later expansive novels never offered nor tried to take up.
Lawrence’s characters aren’t good or evil, sympathetic or villainous; they are fully rounded as one hardly ever finds in fiction. Poe who said: ”characters are not people”; would have changed his mind abut that epigram had he seen this play or read Lawrence’s prose.
The plot of The Daughter In Law is a tale of a mother of a young pregnant working class girl in a mining town who has had an affair with a man already marred. The mother of this pregnant lass comes to the mother of the errant married man asking for financial compensation to raise the child. They plot to say it was begot by a passing itinerant laborer.
The mother she comes to has nearly fatally weakened the capacity of her two sons thorough a very possessive and dominating love after her own husband has died. Her other son lives with her and has not married at all.
Both her sons in different ways are crippled by her in lack of independence and their subservience to women. The mother wishes that she had had a daughter. She does share with the other tow female characters a primal feeling that men are slippery and mackerel, need to be held down rather than accepted as they are if one is to have any saccharate in one’s hearth at all.
The second act takes up in a way we don’t see again in theatre history until Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? the blighted marriage of the son and his more genteel wife; the marriage itself is wretched and abusive. The wife has no respect for the husband.
Lawrence zeros in on the complex wrestling of wife and husband with a domestic life that is in emotional tatters. There is in the background a mining strike that will endanger the lives of the males as much as working in the mines itself does.
I don’t think I’ve never seen marriage and antic portrayed on the stage ever as one sees it in this startling act. Even Albee doesn’t capture the mercurial character of intimacy the way Lawrence does.
The third act resolves these materials in a way that may remind the audience in its fearless propulsion and hurling extension of it materials of Shaw’s plays like Candida and Mrs. Warren’s Profession. It’s a long though condensed play; like all great theatre its riches keep on coming.
Of course given Lawrence’s power to take his effects from life, not a formal Art like tragedy, his plots never resolve in the way that classical denouements do. One in a Lawrence tale enters and leaves in the middle of a very extended and laterally rich story.
One wouldn’t think from his novels and tales that Lawrence would be a master of the linear severities of the play from; one is in for some surprises when one sees how masterfully and easily Lawrence handles a perfectly planned main action with exposition, development and a neat double resolution.
He had along with such craft that kind of hound dog tenacity a great playwright must have to push an action to conclusion far beyond the breadth most of us would take the initial materials. He belongs in the league of Shaw and O’Neill in this talent. Once Lawrence’s engine starts purring it keeps on the road right to the end. If he had been encourage or had lived in another time he would probably have written many more plays than he did.
Lawrence also manages to get a poetic metaphorical level in his discourse very similar to such devices in his poetry in which the action is both lateral, has the seeming music of prose, yet acts symbolically in a way that is so seemeth one cold miss its crafted cunning.
This mix of focus and implied epic sensibility gives an astonishing richness to this play; in one sense it moves forward as a great free verse poem does, the images doing their clandestine work. The symbolism constantly refreshes our perception of the apparently ordinary. The ability of the dialogue to be at once gorgeous and without clichés yet seem to be authentically working class argot is part of his subtle magic.
It’s rather amusing as well as piteous to think of what producers must have said in 1911 to Lawrence when he submitted plays like this to them. In that year nobody in England was even thinking of mounting provincial working class dramas that weren’t even political socialist or humanist in the ways John Galsworthy’s earnest dramas sometimes were. Who would be the audience?
Drury Lane certainly wasn’t about to take up in Ibsenian fashion a world close to the kind of timeless but primally familiar though vertiginous and uncomfortable intimacy between men and women Lawrence was exploring in The Daughter In Law. That was good enough for life. One didn’t go to the theatre for life; one was there to escape it.
Plays in England in that hale but perished year of 1911 were most often detached, rarely having the servants on stage too much, never poetic though sometimes witty, certainly not written in the very dialect of the poor, about as focused on sexual intimacy as they were on defecation and slaughter. We don’t quite have here the language Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in this play; we aren’t all that far from it either.
In fact most of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a not overlay subtle novel of manners, not a focused and fearless anatomical examination of marital love, carnal relations between mothers, sons, and daughters, and anchoress into the male and female spirit as The Daughter in Law is.
For any time this play is fearless and intrepid about charily and love. Like the experience of attending a play of Shaw and O’Neill the author’s bravery makes the audience excited if they were on a trip to Samarkand; they know nothing is going to be unthinkable or censored over this giddy evening. Lawrence uses verbs like “sleep with”; their intent is rather more ambitious, braider than the rather more narrowly purely carnal concerns of Lawrence’s last and most historically sensational novel if hardly his most ambitious one.
Of course it’s typical of Lawrence’s original genius to have turned erotica upside down by writing plays and novels that made pornographic situations into character studies rather than the other way around. The Daughter In Law is closer to the large look at sex of the great novel Women In Love and The Rainbow. It isn’t about sex but psychology though the characters are sexual enough; unlike pornography it’s about how sex influences character. It’s interesting that erotic ideas which surface in his noels in the 1920s were clearly subjects he had been thinking about for a long time, probably much before 1911.
In 2003 one might ask soberly what Lawrence and the Daughter In Law means to us if it count even get any more than Lawrence’s other plays ninety years ago. I don’t mean even for an instant to suggest that all there are to plays are coded discourse, sermons, ciphered arguments in some sense wholly translatable by critics into ideas; as a corollary I also don’t believe that plays that lack ideas or morals are trash, trivial, merely entertaining, whatever that means. Maybe the center of theatre is that it is or is not amusing for reasons half of which we can't explain.
Yet this intellectual side of a play is one of the elements of dramaturgy that one can talk about critically the necessary if not all that descriptive generalizations that are the skeleton of a review. One can’t of course explain the half of its source of interest, its talent, or why The Daughter In Law is an indisputably great play. Yet I think its gift to amuse is wedded to some of its virtues: a flawless structure, the author’s bravery, the fearless depictions of human beings who are intimate, an inquiry into Lawrence’s speculative paradigms of the immortal male and female spirit.
Still, such an ambitious play could have all these qualities and be intolerably boring. Lawrence’s characters are seen in his plays as well as novels as initiates who have already spent a long time with each other, have become familiar with each other at close quarters the first time we see them. They are likely to be in the vicinity of each other for decades after the tale finishes.
Lawrence isn’t very interested in romance or courtship. We never see the young girl the protagonist of this play has knocked up. Lawrence isn’t much intrigued by pure sex. He is a psychologist
. Lawrence presents characters who have lived in the same house together a long time as they have in The Daughter In Law; they are likely over a long season to have insights and take up dialogue with each other that they never would in a drawing room play in a country house such as we are familiar with in English theatre from Pinero to Agatha Christie. There’s no false detachment in Lawrence’s psychology; it regards such an Olympian stance as ultimately mendacious. Who among us lives on a mountain high enough to have such deific qualities?
Lawrence is richly observant of his characters. Yet they come to their perceptions not by looking down from the heights like Zarathustra but from intuitions they garner by risking their vulnerability in close intimacy. Their knowledge is gleaned from making the kind of mistakes flirting with falling into the sort of abysses large and small that opens its jaws between intimates. Certainly anyone who has had and savored the equivocal pleasures and losses of such untidy and bumpy intimacy is going to recognize the world of The Daughter In Law. It’s not milroy a sexual closeness either that promotes such dark epiphanies. It can be relations between parents and children as well. Lawrence’s psychology is not a science in the way that predicts and identifies how hydrogen will react with oxygen in a laboratory. It’s a kind of intrepid pilgrimage through the murk to take up not easily decipherable discoveries snugly hidden in carnal shadows.
This method had inspired Lawrence to embrace a much more subjective way of discerning what truth he could garner from experience than with which most of our contemporary scientists would be comfortable. Lawrence’s psychology as one experiences it in and out of the Daughter ln Law offers an honesty about human epistemology that contradicts one of the central mendacities of the priesthood of our time who claim they view human life with the objectivity one approaches peering at demented insects from a space satellite.
It fascinates us in the theatre and manners of The Daughter in Law that we can appearance something like real life with impunity. The beautifully rich characters in Lawrence’ play still are never going to leave the stage. They don’t see the audience. Invisible, we can take them in like a ghost. Lawrence had some intriguing speculations about male and female character one can savor in The Daughter in Law, part of an inquiry that in the end isn’t going to give us anything like Newton’ celestial mechanics, yet will remind us that the virginal Newton with all his genius was a batter physicist than a psychologist.
Aside from the Ibsenian virtues of examining any intimacy or lack of it, the Daughter In Law asks us to look at other matters, many of them, without the rather mendacious assumption that we are ever standing outside our subjects on the other side of a pane of glass.
This way of thinking is the anatomy of a new science. There are many ordinary truths in The Daughter In Law that were verboten in English theatre in 1911. One must wonder whether Lawrence was aware in the envelope of his originality how impossible it was for him to get produced in his time.
Of course genius in its initial effect always is enthused with a kind of uncritical and hopeful audacity. Plays about the poor were never popular in an England in which the affluent who went to the theatre could see the poor anytime and wanted to avoid them.
Speaking about working class provincial folk as if they were humans equal to the more genteel without being revolutionary or even moderately socialist was and probably still is a politically unimaginable stance. The stifling and carnal love of some mothers for their children after being frustrated with their mates or losing them altogether to death was simply not a topic one discussed politely anywhere then or even now.
The hungers of male sexuality in 1911 were never bantered about in and out of theatre though the quantity of brothels and streetwalkers in Georgian England testified to it daily. One can still shock urbane epicures today by mentioning it honestly. Paying off a woman one has impregnated and presenting it as a sensible resolution to a carnal dilemma was hardly a theme all that amiable to that audience or ours as well. The fracases and furies of domestic life weren’t fare for English drama either. The next play that takes up anything like that nastiness in amour is Noel Coward’s Private Lives.
Lawrence’s psychology isn’t coldly anatomical as a Jonson or Restoration play, a manual by our contemporary experts on real and imaginary pathologies and disorders or a passing look at the Periodic Table; it is a kind of unfolding and subjective view from the innards of a situation tat can only be implead in the narrow but masterful structure of The Daughter In Law. We get to see here an attempt of Lawrence to set up a subjective eyeball-to-eyeball psychology more directly in his later novels.
Yet I can recommend The Daughter In Law most of all because it is amusing. Sometimes it is the trivial or subjective perception which is the most important; it accepts the opacity of the enigma of what is not said and cannot be thought.
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